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The Heart of a New Manufacturing Economy

How Toledo is Building a Green Energy Future on its Auto Past


A single smokestack still towers over the now empty 111-acre Jeep Parkway site in Toledo, Ohio, the birthplace of the civilian Jeep. Since 1915, the smokestack has been one of Toledo’s most recognized landmarks; now it is all that remains of North America’s oldest manufacturing plant.

Some might see a solitary smokestack on an empty expanse of land as a potent symbol of the decline and fall of America’s manufacturing might. To the city of Toledo and its residents, it is a powerful symbol that Toledo’s storied manufacturing legacy is currently being reborn on the site of its industrial past.

Smokestack on the Jeep Parkway site in Toledo

For Toledo residents, this solitary smokestack on the Jeep Parkway site symbolizes both their city’s rich manufacturing legacy and the potential for a green energy-driven renaissance in the Glass City.

Prior to the recession, auto communities had already been coping with a years-long decline in the industry. In 2008, when GM and Chrysler collapsed, 334,000 jobs were lost, with more to follow. Robustly middle-class families, employed for generations by the auto industry, saw their livelihoods and lifestyles swept away. Their communities were left with rising poverty rates, vacant properties, a significantly reduced tax base, and few prospects to recover their former prosperity.

Toledo has been no different. “In a way, Toledo is akin to a poster child for what happens during a recession,” says Keith Burwell, President and CEO of the Toledo Community Foundation. “It wasn’t a city in decay, the downtown wasn’t crumbling, but the recession and the auto difficulties have put the city in a position where it’s struggling economically.”

The impact on auto communities could have easily been dismissed as a regional problem. Instead, it became a focus for coordinated action. In 2006, spurred by the steady decline in some older cities and manufacturing jobs, the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities oversaw the formation of the Restoring Prosperity in Older Industrial Cities (OIC) working group to help these cities face new economic realities. In the wake of the recession, there is a new urgency to this work, but there’s also an unlikely bright spot on the horizon: auto brownfields, abandoned or idled former industrial sites where redevelopment is complicated by the presence of pollutants, contaminants, and/or industrial waste.

The shuttered auto plants that dot the industrial Midwest are increasingly becoming the center of creative thinking about smart growth, design, and just what it means to “revitalize.” Jasmine Thomas is a program officer for the Surdna Foundation, a founding member of the OIC group. “At Surdna, we’ve long believed in and supported initiatives that help America’s older industrial cities become laboratories for innovation and create sustainable economies,” Thomas says. “The bottom line is that we can no longer delay transforming brownfields, idle factories, and plants to a more productive use. We need them in service, providing quality local jobs and realizing robust local economies.”

Toledo’s Jeep Parkway site is one of the more revolutionary brownfield revitalization efforts. It’s here that a diverse group of collaborators are envisioning the creation of a Jeep District that will encompass work, home, education, and recreation.

The Jeep Parkway site is public property owned by the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority. The Port Authority is independent; it isn’t under the control of the county, the city, or a company, and that has opened the door for a unique type of teamwork. The Toledo Community Foundation has assisted as a neutral convener of stakeholders.

“Everyone is included,” Burwell says, “from the Port Authority to the University of Toledo to the Chamber of Commerce to the Urban League to TRACE (Toledo Regional Architects, Contractors and Engineers). We are moving from talking to doing.”

Toledo had already decided it wasn’t turning its back on what it does best—manufacturing. Instead, it would shift focus from cars to emerging technologies. It was already the center of solar panel production in America. The University of Toledo has been an established leader in solar cell research for more than two decades and runs an active and established incubator service. That made the Jeep Parkway site, strategically located near expressways, railways, and the river, the perfect place for Toledo to once again take a manufacturing lead.

New technologies need state-of-the-art plants, and the new site will embrace the most forward-thinking sustainable design and technology available. A solar farm, bioswales, LED solar lighting, native vegetation and rain gardens, porous surfaces, and LEED certification will help establish it as a premier physical plant that will meet the needs of modern manufacturing and make it an anchor of sustainable industrial redevelopment. The stakeholders are working to establish a Toledo Build Fund to finance and construct spec buildings for businesses that require a different kind of facility.

While building to attract business is central to the American mindset, it’s usually not one that encompasses restoring vitality to neighborhoods impacted by job loss.

“When a business goes away,” Burwell says, “it’s more than just a loss of jobs at the plant. It’s also about the commerce it created in nearby neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods lose their sandwich shops, their corner stores, their barbers—places workers go to do the everyday errands of life. The shutdown of a plant impacts the neighborhoods that surround it in unexpected ways.”

Two neighborhoods border the Jeep Parkway site: Willys Park and Liberty Park. Both grew in tandem with the Jeep Parkway facility over the 96 years it rolled out cars. Now, however, they grapple with a 35 percent poverty rate. As the process of revitalizing the Jeep Parkway site began to move forward, it became clear that to make it a true success meant not leaving the neighborhoods behind.

Photo of Jeep factory workers

Workers celebrate the millionth Jeep to roll off the assembly line (1952)

“If you want to revitalize a neighborhood,” Burwell says, “the first place you start is with jobs. The goal now is to be very intentional in linking jobs at the Jeep Parkway site with the neighborhoods. In that respect, this isn’t a typical brownfield redevelopment. We are purposely looking to create anchors and workforce development in Willys Park and Liberty Park that will lead to jobs for the residents and stabilized neighborhood economies.”

Part of connecting the neighborhoods to the site is reducing barriers that are in place. An existing park on the west side of the site stops at the expressway. Local bike trails currently stop short of Willys Park and Liberty Park. In the revitalization, these features would be extended into the neighborhoods. Plans also include landbanking and taking infrastructure no longer suitable for housing to create green space for urban agriculture and public use. The addition of green space is a common thread throughout.

The initial plan for the Jeep Parkway brownfields redevelopment sets aside up to 80 percent of the site for long-term public use and/or green space, including a 30-acre waterfront park that will showcase the remaining smokestack. A riverfront walk that offers interpretive stops will guide walkers through the history of the site and Jeep. Recycled Jeep headlights, powered by solar LEDs, will illuminate the footpaths. Multi-modal trails for biking, running, and walking will give the public space a sense of ruggedness long associated with the Jeep brand. A new trail will provide access to the residents of Willys Park.

Next steps also include working with an EPA planning grant for the neighborhood as well as reaching out to the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative to explore best practices and leverage support to make homes in Willys Park and Liberty Park safer and greener. Local educational institutions are on board to create on-site training and workforce development for local residents so that the talent the new Jeep Parkway industries need will be homegrown.

In reclaiming the Jeep Parkway site for its future, Toledo is creating something that will continue its manufacturing evolution: if you imagine it, then you will be able to design it, create it, and send it to market—all at Jeep Parkway.

“Welcome to the Heart of the New Manufacturing Economy” is the tagline of the Toledo Region Brand. At the Jeep Parkway site, Toledo is laying out a green welcome mat.

Ben Starrett is the founding executive director of the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities, created in late-1999 to inspire, strengthen, and expand philanthropic leadership and funders’ abilities to support organizations working to improve communities through better development decisions and growth policies.

Kris Smith is Director of Leadership Development at the Funders’ Network. He provides staff leadership to the Restoring Prosperity in Older Industrial Cities funder working group and also manages the Network’s philanthropic leadership development program, PLACES.

Featured illustration by Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority.

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